This question seems like it should have a simple answer. However, the answer is more complicated than it would seem. Let’s explore.
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Canned Soft Drinks and Beverages
Canned sodas are hermetically sealed and are bottled with bacteria free water. This means that high heat won’t grow anything undue. However, sodas have flavorings, artificial and sometimes natural colors and sugar or artificial sweeteners. Depending on these ingredients, sodas can deteriorate if left in hot conditions.
Canned sodas are “bottled” (or canned) in aluminum cans. While aluminum is heat safe, think about the aluminum foil you use to bake with, there is no problem with the aluminum itself. In fact, because the drink is fully sealed and not exposed to UV light, this method of storage with heat probably offers your best chances of retaining a drinkable beverage even after being exposed to excessive heat. If the aluminum were the only problem, this section would be over.
However, we must also consider the ingredients. The good news here is that artificial and natural colors are generally heat stable. Again, think about baking with food coloring. Colors don’t degrade under 350ºF / 176.7ºC baking temperatures, which is far lower than the heat your car interior should ever be.
The same goes for soda flavorings. Most flavorings are designed for baking purposes which also reach high temperatures needed for baking.
What’s ingredients are left?
Sweeteners and preservatives. Depending on the sweetener, it might or might not be high heat stable. For example, it is known that Aspartame (aka NutraSweet) is not high heat stable. As temperatures increase, Aspartame begins to break down into components such as methanol. Keep in mind that Aspartame is made up of 10% methanol, 40% aspartic acid, and 50% phenylalanine.
Methanol is a highly toxic substance that, when heated above 86 degrees F (as it is in your body), is metabolized into formaldehyde (embalming fluid) and formic acid (the poison in fire ants).
As the above quote states, at 86ºF / 30ºC is when methanol begins to break down into formaldehyde and formic acid. This temperature is well lower than the temperatures which can be reached inside of a hot car. During a hot summer day, temperatures in a car can reach temperatures 20-30ºF / 5-10ºC hotter than the outdoor temperature. For example, a 90ºF / 32ºC ambient outdoor temperature can see temperatures rise to between 110ºF-120ºF / 43.3ºC-48.9ºC inside of a car.
If a beverage you’ve left in the vehicle contains Aspartame, it may not be safe to drink if the can has reached these high temperatures. For canned drinks, it takes between 30 minutes up to 1 hour to heat a can up to these high temperatures once in a vehicle.
Beverages that contain other sweeteners, such as saccharine, sugar, stevia or agave, are considered heat safe sweeteners. Sucralose (aka Splenda) claims to be heat safe, but may or may not be. If a drink contains Sucralose, you might want to taste it first. If the drink is no longer as sweet as you expect, a portion of the sweetener may have broken down in the heat and it’s not recommended to drink.
There are two different types of bottles: glass and plastic.
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Glass bottles are safe to drink so long as it contains heat safe ingredients. However, if the bottles have been exposed to UV by sitting in direct sunlight, some of the coloring might have faded and flavors may changed. I’d be cautious if the bottle has been sitting around for hours in sunlight. I’d strongly suggest a smell and taste for any bottle which has been sitting in UV light for longer than 1 hour. If the bottle has been sitting for an hour, then it shouldn’t be problem. Always use the nose and taste test to determine suitability for drinking. If it doesn’t taste right, spit it out, then toss it out.
Plastic bottles are different beast. Plastic bottles can leach plastic and chemicals into the beverage after sitting in a hot car. This goes for water bottles and flavored beverages. If your beverage has been sitting for hours in direct sunlight in a super hot car, toss it out. Don’t risk it. It doesn’t matter if the ingredients are heat safe. It’s the plastic leaching that becomes the problem with plastic bottles.
Wine, Beer and Spirits
Wine is a drink that is best kept at room temperature (i.e., at or below 78ºF / 25.6ºC). If wine bottles are exposed to higher heat, such as 85ºF / 29.4ºC or hotter, the bottle of wine can be ruined. By ruined, the flavors change, the subtle aromas are lost and the bottle may increase tannins, making the wine unpalatable. The longer the wine remains at a high temp, the more the wine may turn into a flavor resembling vinegar. If you open a bottle and it tastes of vinegar, the bottle is bad. This goes for all wines including white, red, rose and bubbly.
Beer, like wine, will also sour and go bad when stored above room temperature for long periods. Unlike wine, beer is carbonated. This goes for sparkling wine and Champagne as well.
If you’re paying a lot for your wine or beer, you want to keep it in your car near an air conditioning vent, then remove from the car as soon as you arrive home. If it’s an especially hot day and you need to do a lot of running around, I’d suggest bringing a cooler with you and placing these into a cooler with ice. That, or shop for these items last.
Spirits, such as Tequila, Vodka and even Liqueurs can go bad in high heat. This is especially true for liqueurs like Bailey’s Irish Cream, which does contains dairy cream. Anything containing dairy should always be stored refrigerated once opened. However, Bailey’s Irish Cream remains shelf stable if unopened and is stored under room temperature conditions.
Regardless of whether a drink contains high-heat safe ingredients, sitting in super hot conditions or subject to UV exposure for long periods isn’t good for any food or drink. If you accidentally leave a case of soda cans in your car for three days or longer, I’d suggest tasting one first. By tasting, I mean just that. Taste and spit. If it tastes at all funny, then the cans are bad.
When buying drinks, it is suggested to take them into an air conditioned climate as soon as possible. Sure, you can run around for a little while while shopping, but be cautious for how long. If you know you plan to shop the entire day for hours, then plan to bring a cooler and place beverages and food items into the cooler to keep them stored properly and safely.
Carbonated beverages have one other problem with high heat. As more and more manufacturers reduce costs, they tend to make their product containers (cans and bottles) as thin as possible. These containers are safe when stored in appropriate conditions. However, under high heat conditions, these containers can weaken and burst.
As high heat creeps in, this weakens a plastic bottle or can, which can lead to an explosion. Safety is a concern when buying a case of cans or plastic bottles and choosing to leave then in a hot car. Glass bottles should be safer in regards to exploding, but the beverage itself may not survive high heat conditions.
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Summer Safety Tips
Always store cans and bottles in a cooler, if at all possible. If you know you plan shopping at a number of stores, plan to bring a cooler with ice. This way, you can store cans and bottles in the cooler while remaining out and about. As our summers seem to be getting hotter and hotter each year, carrying around a cooler becomes ever more important.
If you’re buying expensive beer, wine and spirits, then you definitely want a cooler. There’s no danger in storing wine at ice temperatures for a short time, but there is definitely a danger from wine becoming too hot. Same for beer and spirits. For soda or bottled water, it’s fine to remain in the car for a 20 minute drive home, but if it needs to remain in the car for hours, then you’ll want plan a cooler for these as well.
As we move into the hotter days of summer, plan to spend for and use a decent cooler for those days when you need to be out and about for longer than a few hours.